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Like Colors in a Painting

Spotlight on Pictures at an Exhibition


“See the music, hear the dance”—it’s one of George Balanchine’s most repeated (if apocryphal) quotes, succinctly capturing the musicality for which his choreography is best known. In it can be found a call to the audience to engage with works free of the need for a plot or characters; an explanation of the choreographer’s project; and a metaphor for the experience of a “whole” work of art composed of different media, brought harmoniously together. All three readings apply to Alexei Ratmansky’s fourth work for the Company, Pictures at an Exhibition, whose title indicates already the “multi-sensory” quality of this particular work.

The ballet’s title comes from Modest Mussorgsky’s eponymous 1874 composition, a tribute to his friend, the artist and architect Viktor Hartmann. Following his graduation with honors from the Academy of Fine Arts in Saint Petersburg, Hartmann’s career was cut tragically short. At age 39, he died of an aneurysm, leaving behind an array of paintings, sketches, architectural plans, illustrations, and even ballet costume designs, many created during a tour of Europe, and over 400 of which were featured in an exhibition at the Academy in 1874. Mussorgsky was deeply moved by the sudden loss of his compatriot, and further by the experience of walking through this exhibition; in writing Pictures, the composer extended the life of both that experience and the oeuvre of his late friend, the former in “Promenade” sections that repeat throughout the resulting piano suite, the latter in ten movements that aurally describe Hartmann’s artworks.

Mussorgky’s sole opera and best-known composition, Boris Godunov, was in production around the time of Hartmann’s death. Though the composer noted his ease in writing Pictures in a letter to his friend, saying “Hartmann is boiling as Boris boiled,” and apparently intended to publish it directly, a lukewarm, bemused reception from friends likely dissuaded Mussorgsky from pursuing further audiences. The suite went unpublished until 1886, five years after Mussorgsky’s own death, and remained fairly unknown until orchestrated in 1922 by Maurice Ravel. That version is perhaps the most familiar to today’s listeners, as the basis for performances aimed at audiences of all ages—with its illustrative qualities and references to imagery that would be familiar to children as well as adults, the orchestration is a popular choice for pops and matinee concerts.

Pictures at an Exhibition’s value in preserving Mussorgsky’s friend’s art was slightly diminished by the delay in the music’s reception by a wider public; in the years following Hartmann’s death, most of the original sketches and paintings were lost. What remains are Mussorgsky’s musical portraits, the vibrance, simplicity, and emotional potency of which convey more than the canvases themselves. Rather, each movement in Mussorgsky’s piano suite captures his experience of those canvases, and the imaginative work done in converting two-dimensional artworks into short but rich musical interludes. These audio “pictures” include “The Gnome,” “Catacombs,” and “The Ballet of Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells,” among others.

Principal Dancer Tiler Peck in Pictures at an Exhibition

In 1928, another Russian artist was invited to stage Pictures at an Exhibition for the Friedrich Theatre in Dessau, Germany: painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky. A pioneer of abstraction within Western art, Kandinsky was deeply inspired by the impressionist paintings of Oscar-Claude Monet and a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Monet’s influence can be seen in his increasingly expressionistic use of color blocks, and Wagner’s in his lasting efforts toward creating a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” that incorporates various media into a cohesive, transcendent whole.

Kandinsky’s output and his theoretical writings, most powerfully “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” published in 1911, reflect these influences, in combination with the artist’s interpretation of his reported synesthesia. Synesthesia refers to a “perceptual phenomenon” by which the perceiver’s senses intermingle, such that, for example, a noise heard is experienced as a taste or scent. For Kandinsky, each color had its own particular feeling and sound. He even connected hues to specific notes, played on specific instruments—when seeing the color green, for one, he heard the “placid, middle notes of a violin.” In his spiritual theory of art, color could therefore be freed from objects or specific subjects in a painting and still have vast expressive potential. Shapes similarly took on meanings of their own, with circles, in particular, corresponding to the “fourth dimension.”

Staging Pictures at an Exhibition provided Kandinsky with the opportunity to produce a Gesamtkunstwerk, combining music, painted set pieces, and motion. This last was realized in the movement of the set pieces on and off the stage and corresponding changes to lighting, all of which were strictly choreographed by the artist. Though he wrote of Mussorgsky’s composition, “if it ‘shows’ something anyway, then it is not the pictures themselves, but only the experiences of Mussorgsky that far exceed the ‘content’ of painting and find a purely musical form,” Kandinsky’s own paintings do often represent what is described in the movements’ titles, though greatly abstracted. In a sense, Kandinsky translated both the program notes and the musical content of Pictures at an Exhibition into his own paintings, which capture the essence of the subject matter in his own style—a reinterpretation, as though he and Hartmann might have been imagining simultaneously the costumes “unhatched chicks” might wear in a ballet, and producing works in their own unique vocabularies.

“Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
—Wassily Kandinsky


Though Kandinsky’s original set pieces were not preserved, his sketches were, and have been used to explore and creatively recreate the experience. Pianist Mikhaïl Rudy partnered with the Pompidou Center and the Paris Philharmonic in 2010 to make an animated film using Kandinsky’s sketches, as well as the artist’s “script” for the stage production, and reinvest the interaction between music and imagery with movement. In 2014, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky took a similar, yet decidedly unique, approach to the Mussorgsky score with his own Pictures at an Exhibition.

In a sense, there is a “narrative” to the music; it outlines a journey through the Academy of Fine Art, stopping to take in specific images of characters, buildings, and animals. The opportunity to create a ballet that strictly illustrates the program of the score is readily apparent; Ratmansky’s approach was to rather let the audience “see” the music free of these predetermined subjects. “When I started to work on this music, there were stories and characters, preset,” he says in a video created by Wiener Staatsballett in 2021. “For example, the second musical number is the ‘gnome,’ which is a very angry little magical creature that does bad things. So casting a beautiful prima ballerina [in that role], there is an irony to it. But she has to find her ‘inner gnome,’ so to speak, and release this negative energy, or imagine this negative energy. That’s interesting to see, when the dancers are pushed out of their comfort zone.” Along with pushing the performers out of their “comfort zones,” this approach lifts the characters themselves—like the gnome, the unhatched chicks, the “cattle” of the “Bydlo” movement—from the illustrative project of the score, freeing the music from its appearance of merely describing the paintings.

“Another example of this reverse characterization: Baba Yaga, the folklore character from Russian tales, the old witch living in a forest and eating lost children. [The role is] danced by a man in the ballet, and he needs to find his inner witch,” Ratmansky adds. “All these characters and pictures and stories that are depicted so beautifully by Mussorgsky: it’s not like we’re translating it. I try to give the dancers an experience of living within these images and worlds.”

For the set design, Ratmansky brought on legendary projection designer Wendall K. Harrington, nicknamed “the godmother of all projectors” by John Simon in New York Magazine. He selected Kandinsky’s “Color Study: Squares with Concentric Circles,” from 1913, to serve as the backdrop. A sketch the artist used to explore the relationships between hues and shapes, the work is loose, brilliantly-colored, and well removed from the clean-lined geometry of Kandinsky’s 1928 backdrops for his own production of Pictures. Harrington invests the set designs with the movement Kandinsky so prized by pulling the work apart into individual circles and brushstrokes, enlarging portions of the sketch and revealing the richness of detail in this beloved abstract work, all through shifting projections behind the dancers. In some ways, this represents a bolder embrace of Kandinsky’s own project: the colors move and become nearly audible in their relationship to the piano playing and the dancers onstage, producing a Gesamtkunstwerk that celebrates an abstract beauty all the work’s own. “Each little piece in this suite has its own character, its own story, its own world, and we try to give the audience the feeling that the music is born from the movements of the dancers,” says Ratmansky. “The dancers are, in a sense, like colors in this painting.”

One more quote from Kandinsky, which aligns quite powerfully with Ratmansky’s description of his ballet: “Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and... stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to 'walk about' into a hitherto unknown world.” With Pictures at an Exhibition, Ratmansky makes this call for an immersive experience come to life on NYCB’s stage.

Principal Dancers Indiana Woodward and Joseph Gordon in Pictures at an Exhibition

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